Movies

Without Jon Landau, We Might Not Have the Avatar Franchise

Avatar was a massive gamble. Jon Landau ensured that it paid off.

Tuk (Trinity Bliss) in Avatar: The Way of Water
20th Century Studios

James Cameron is universally known as the King of the Blockbuster, one of a chosen few who’s beaten his own box office record twice over — but he doesn’t share that distinction alone. Since 1995, Cameron’s passions have been matched only by his producing partner, Jon Landau. Together the pair brought True Lies, Titanic, Avatar, and its many upcoming sequels to life; throughout the years Landau has been regarded as Cameron’s secret weapon.

“If one of Cameron’s superpowers is the depth of his focus, that focus is partly made possible because Landau is somewhere nearby,” The Hollywood Reporter wrote in 2022. Added Cameron: “I don’t want to say nice things in front of him — it’ll go to his head — but I feel like there’s no problem we can’t solve.”

On July 5, Landau passed away after a battle with cancer. His loss is felt throughout the film industry, but it’s a particular blow for Cameron’s production company and its collaborators. Landau was known best for his work alongside Cameron, though his efforts behind the scenes have undoubtedly flown under the radar. It’s much easier to celebrate more tangible achievements: a compelling story, distinctive direction, or breathtaking visual effects (often created with bespoke technology). It’s usually Cameron who gets the praise in that regard — and it’s praise he definitely deserves, especially where the Avatar franchise is concerned. But the Avatar films wouldn’t be what they are without Landau, who worked tirelessly to bring Cameron’s vision to life.

Landau was a major champion of Cameron’s, as the director shared in a statement: “Jon was my right hand and I was his.”

Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Before its critically-acclaimed sequel, Avatar itself was a hard sell. Its premise was infamously basic, cribbing hard from established anti-imperial stories like Dances with Wolves and Disney’s Pocahontas. It was Cameron’s direction, and the visual effects he pioneered for this new world, that justified the price of admission: he and his team worked hard for over a decade to tell this story right, and that effort shone in every frame. Despite what some may believe, its cultural impact can’t be overstated. No, it wasn’t reinventing the wheel story-wise, but it still created major waves.

In a recent statement shared with THR, Cameron likened Avatar to the Manhattan Project. His team was “making up new physics as we went along. Mastering a brand new methodology to tell stories.” And Landau — by that point a key player at Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment — took it all in stride. “Jon gave his all, and never lost faith that we were doing something extraordinary and that we would somehow prevail,” Cameron wrote. “In the process we not only made a film, we forged a family.”

Avatar’s cultural impact is massive, and that’s partially due to Jon Landau’s efforts behind the scenes.

20th Century Studios

They also created an entirely new universe, a rarity for an industry that’s grown increasingly reliant on established franchises and well-known IP. It was Landau who sold the idea of Avatar in 3D to exhibitors around the world — a concept that gave birth to a very lucrative moviegoing trend in the 2010s. He became the “architect” of ancillary Avatar projects as well, collaborating with Dark Horse Comics and Penguin Random house on spinoff books and comics, and with Ubisoft on Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. While Cameron busied himself with more boundary-pushing technology and even more sequels, Landau seemed focused on expanding the franchise in other ways.

“Jon was my right hand and I was his,” Cameron wrote. “In recent years we became a trapeze act… total interdependence, total trust, total synchronization.”

It’s hard to imagine what Lightstorm or Cameron’s future films will look like without his influence, as he had a hand in shaping so many of the filmmaker’s most notable projects. Cameron, at least, seems optimistic: “The amazing team he assembled and led still remains, and we will dedicate ourselves to fulfilling Jon’s legacy. Not just the films yet to come, but the love and connection that binds the Avatar and Lightstorm family together.”

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